By KAREN CHARMAN
Before President George W. Bush took office, the idea of building more nuclear reactors would have been dismissed as wishful fantasy on the part of the nuclear industry and its most hardcore supporters. Until relatively recently, the nuclear industry was widely considered, if not dying, then seriously and chronically ill.
Legendary cost overruns on building the first generation of reactors -- which had been sold on the promise that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter" -- created financial fiascos for utilities and state economies that were said to threaten American competitiveness. In February 1985, Forbes magazine declared the American experience with nuclear power "the largest managerial disaster in business history." Mainly due to the economics, more nuclear plants were canceled than the 103 reactors that are operating in the US now. On top of that, serious accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl made nuclear energy a pariah among the public.
But the Bush administration has managed to breathe new life into the nuclear industry. So much so that the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's main public relations and lobbying arm, chose the slogan "A Flourishing Renaissance" for its annual convention in Washington, D.C. in May. The media is filled with stories about the nuclear industry's revival, and with rolling blackouts in California that may spread to other parts of the country, the nuclear option has been hurled back onto the table.
But the public would do well to consider a few facts about nuclear power that its boosters are either failing to mention or are, let's say, being less than candid about. It is also worth examining the circumstances that have brought about the nuclear industry's sudden and miraculous ascension from purgatory.
At a time of soaring energy costs, we are told that nuclear power, at 1.83 cents per kilowatt hour compared with 2.07 cents for coal, 3.52 for natural gas, and 3.8 cents for oil, is now the cheapest source of energy. But as creative accountants know, cost calculations can vary greatly: It depends what you count. The above figure represents only the current operating cost of a nuclear power plant -- the cost of the fuel to run the reactors plus maintenance on the plants. It does not include all the really expensive stuff associated with nuclear power that the public gets to pay for.
One of the most recent public handouts to the nuclear industry came via energy "deregulation," which was supposed to make energy markets more efficient by allowing people to choose the kind of power that supplied electricity to their homes and businesses. A good idea in theory, but utilities were saddled with huge debts -- mainly from building nuclear power plants -- and it was not politically possible to lift their monopolies and let them sweat it out in the market on their own, says Karl Rabago, managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute and a former public utilities commissioner in Texas.
Ironically, Rabago says, it is nuclear power that started the chain reaction that has led to the current energy debacle in California, which is fueling calls for more nuclear power: "Up until the time we started bringing nuclear power into rates, the electricity industry was enjoying declining costs and increasing economies of scale. Nuclear power turned everything upside down."
He cites the cost of the Comanche Peaks nuclear power station in Texas as an example. It went from initial estimates of $750 million to $12 billion by the time it was completed. Every state that deregulated passed on these debts -- billions of dollars in "stranded costs" -- to ratepayers in the form of a special transition charge on their power bills.
Besides picking up the excessive cost of building the things, we also get to pick up the tab on the mounting stockpile of deadly radioactive waste that is generated by the fission process. To understand what this means, a short lesson in nuclear physics may be in order.
When the uranium fuel goes into the reactor core it is mildly radioactive. In the core, the fuel is bombarded by neutrons which split the uranium atoms and create the nuclear chain reaction that produces the heat and steam that turn a turbine to then produce electricity. After awhile, all of the fissionable material in the uranium fuel is used up, or "spent." But the neutron bombardment makes the fuel intensely radioactive -- two and a half million times more radioactive, according to Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist with Radioactive Waste Management Associates in New York City.
American nuclear power plants are in the process of creating an estimated 85,000 metric tons of spent fuel that is so deadly it must be completely isolated from the environment for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years. A Nevada state agency report put the toxicity in perspective: even after 10 years out of the reactor, an unshielded spent fuel assembly (the thing that holds the fuel) would emit enough radiation to kill somebody standing three feet away from it in less than three minutes.
Nuclear power plants were not built to store all of the waste that they would generate during their operating lives, but nuclear proponents thought somebody would come up with a technological solution before it really became a problem. The first strategy was to reprocess the fuel, which would cut down on the amount of "high level waste" from the reactors. But one of the downsides with reprocessing is that separating the uranium out leaves behind a large quantity of plutonium that can be used to make nuclear bombs.
In the interest of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, former President Jimmy Carter halted reprocessing in the late '70s. No technological solution to decontaminate the waste has yet appeared. So, it has been piling up at nuclear plants around the country, and many are having to move their waste out of the now overcrowded cooling pools that were built to temporarily hold the spent fuel and place it in special "dry casks" on their premises.
Back in the '50s, the US government pledged that the public would become the proud owners of the nuclear industry's toxic trash heap. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the Department of Energy (DOE) was given the arbitrary deadline of January 1998 to start collecting reactor waste, but DOE still doesn't have anywhere to put it. It had been known for some time that DOE would not meet the January 1998 deadline, and the nuclear industry is getting a little impatient that DOE has not made good on what the industry regards as the public's end of the deal. This sense of corporate entitlement was reflected in a comment reported in the March 1995 issue of Electric Light & Power that former Nuclear Energy Institute president Philip Bayne made at the 1995 annual meeting of the American Nuclear Society: "It's very simple. They have our money. We have their waste. We want them to come and get it."
Actually, it is not as simple as Bayne would like us to believe. The money he referred to is not the industry's money, it's the nuclear waste fund, which is paid to electric utilities by ratepayers. Nevertheless, a number of nuclear utilities have filed suit against DOE seeking billions in damages for not picking up "our" waste on time. Exelon Corp., the nation's largest nuclear utility, has reached a settlement with DOE that allows it to withhold up to $80 million over the next 10 years from the nuclear waste fund to offset the costs of storing the spent fuel from one of its power plants onsite.
For nearly 20 years, DOE has been trying to find a suitable place to build an underground storage site to house the high level waste from the nation's commercial reactors. Up through fiscal year 1999, the latest figures available, DOE says we have spent $6.3 billion. The total cost of dealing with 70,000 metric tons of high level waste, the maximum currently allowed in one repository, is estimated at $49.2 billion.
In the early '80s, DOE spotted Yucca Mountain, a north-south ridge of volcanic tuff located on the edge of the Nuclear Test Site in the Nevada desert about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. DOE was also considering sites in Washington state, Texas and Utah, but according to Joe Strolin, the planning division administrator with Nevada's Agency for Nuclear Projects, only Nevada lacked the political clout to get itself removed from the list. Politics aside, the geology of Yucca Mountain is telling us that it is a terrible place to stick such a large quantity of the most long-lived and deadly substances known to humankind.
Webster's New World Dictionary defines tuff as "a porous rock, usually stratified, formed by consolidation of volcanic ash, dust, etc." Atomic bomb testing in the Pacific that ended nearly 50 years ago has already proved just how porous the mountain is. Chlorine-36, a rare radioactive element that could have only come from the bomb testing, has been found in the aquifer beneath Yucca Mountain. Scientists have also discovered that the groundwater under the mountain moves very quickly, transporting minerals that are highly corrosive to the nickel alloy that DOE plans to use for the waste containers.
Yucca Mountain is located in a geologically active area of old volcanoes that is prone to earthquakes. In June 1992, an earthquake registering 5.6 on the Richter scale hit approximately eight miles south of Yucca Mountain, causing about $1 million of damage to DOE facilities in the area. California Institute of Technology researchers have also discovered that the ground around Yucca Mountain is expanding at a much faster rate than was previously predicted. Scientists think this is probably due to magma movement beneath the surface, which could increase the likelihood of earthquakes and volcanoes. According to the US Geological Survey, Nevada is the third most active region in the country for earthquakes, behind Alaska and California.
DOE's response has been to try to engineer its way around the problems, or when it can't do that, change the rules. For example, DOE discovered the waste containers cannot be buried directly in the floor or walls of the tunnels it plans to build because they contain too much of that corrosive water. Now DOE plans to cover the waste packages with titanium drip shields in approximately 100 miles of tunnels -- at a cost of about $4 billion. Back in 1992, DOE scientists acknowledged that levels of radioactive gases exceeding what the feds allowed would escape from the mountain. "So in the Energy Policy Act of 1992, DOE got Congress to write in an exemption for Yucca Mountain, so that they didn't have to meet that standard," Strolin said. DOE and NRC are also currently trying to get Congress to waive the groundwater contamination standard of 4 millirems of total radiation exposure per individual, because they know that will be exceeded once the waste canisters start to leak.
Nuclear proponents have long argued that once there is a place to put the high level waste, the waste problem is solved. But in its haste to solve the nuclear waste dilemma, DOE appears to be ignoring the main principle behind burying it. "The concept of geological disposal is simple. This stuff is so nasty, we don't want to rely on anything manmade to try to hold it. So the idea is to rely primarily on the geologic environment for the waste isolation capability," Strolin said. "That means finding a site in a geologically stable area that's been stable for millions of years, and because of its past history, you can have good confidence it's going to remain stable and secure for the next several million years. Yucca Mountain is not such a place."
In mantra-like unison, nuclear proponents claim that the waste disposal question is not a technical problem but a political problem. Yucca Mountain is a perfectly good site, they say, and only politics have held up its formal selection as the nation's nuclear burial ground. No doubt the good people of Nevada do not want the stigma of being the caretaker of the largest quantity of the nation's most lethal substances. But considering what we are planning to put inside it, the fact that scientists have raised questions about earthquakes, volcanoes, and quickly moving, corrosive groundwater in connection with this site should be enough to disqualify it.
DOE is expected to make its recommendation on Yucca Mountain toward the end of the year. It has already indicated it favors the site, and with the nuclear industry's new and improved status, and the Bush administration's ardent political support, DOE is almost certain to approve Yucca Mountain.
Despite the industry's tantrums, there isn't a pressing need to move the waste, and many in the environmental community say the waste would be better off staying at nuclear power plants where it can be monitored to make sure that any problem with a container is fixed before it starts to leak. But beyond where we might put this toxic trash, is the disturbing issue of how it will get there. The plan is to ship it down the nation's highways and rail lines over a period of 30 years on proposed routes that are half a mile from the homes of 50 million Americans.
"Mobile Chernobyl," as opponents have dubbed it, presents a number of problems. At the very least, those unlucky enough to be stuck in traffic next to a gamma-emitting waste cask will be zapped with radiation doses equivalent to one chest x-ray an hour, according to the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, an anti-nuclear watchdog group. The exposure presents particular risks to pregnant women and their fetuses, children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems.
We can also expect nuclear road accidents. According to Department of Transportation data, nearly 100,000 accidents released toxic material in the US and its territories between 1987 and 1997. DOE studies predict one accident out of 343 shipments, and considering that collecting the nation's nuclear garbage will take around 90,000 shipments, more than 260 accidents are anticipated.
And what might happen in the event of an accident involving a high level waste shipment? By DOE's calculations, a realistic but not even worst-case scenario that includes a high-speed crash and fire emitting a relatively small amount of radiation in a rural area would contaminate 42 square miles and take 462 days to clean up at a cost of $620 million. Resnikoff, of Radioactive Waste Management Associates, says the cost could rise to $19.4 billion, depending on how populated the area is and how thoroughly it is cleaned up. George Burke, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters -- whose members would be the first to respond to a nuclear road or rail accident -- says there is no nationally coordinated emergency response strategy. The task would be left to local fire departments, most of which he says are "woefully unprepared."
Besides endowing us with their waste, the nuclear industry and the government have also bequeathed to us the lion's share of the cost of a catastrophic reactor accident, should one, God-forbid, occur. In 1957 the Price-Anderson Act was passed to limit a nuclear utility's liability for an accident, currently to $7 billion. Price-Anderson is up for renewal next year, and there is talk of raising the industry's liability to $10 billion. But that is still a small fraction of what it would cost to deal with a Chernobyl, which is currently estimated at more than $350 billion.
Nuclear proponents claim that the many redundant safety systems -- known as "defense-in-depth" -- are adequate to prevent a major accident. But David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that in reality, defense-in-depth is a sham: "It becomes a shell game, because if you find a problem, you discount it because you have, say, two back-ups." The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not require all the equipment in a nuclear facility to be checked, a task that would probably be impossible because of the complexity of the plants. And while the NRC argues that its inspections are thorough enough, Lochbaum disagrees. He uses the metaphor of faulty tires on a car to describe the NRC's inspection process. "If you saw the metal belts showing through a steel-belted tire, you'd check the other three tires to see if they are equally worn. The NRC's process is that after you fix the one tire, you don't look at the others. You just assume they are okay."
In 1985, the NRC itself testified in Congress that there was a 45% chance of a severe reactor accident over the following 20 years. Lochbaum says only luck has so far prevented it. How bad does the government acknowledge an accident could be? According to a 1982 study by the Sandia National Laboratory, one of the labs run by the DOE, a meltdown that breaches the containment at the Limerick nuclear plant outside Philadelphia could kill 74,000 people within a year, result in 34,000 subsequent cancer deaths, and give another 61,000 people a range of radiation-related injuries.
But not to worry. We are now told that the new generation of reactors the nuclear industry wants to build are "inherently safe" and "accident-proof" (of course, this is the same message we heard before the Three Mile Island accident).
The most popular of these new and improved reactors is the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. The concept for the pebble bed dates back to the 1950s and gets its name from the fuel, which is in the form of billiard ball-sized uranium pellets encased in graphite. This design uses helium, or in case of an accident, convective air instead of water to cool the reactor and is said to be so safe that it does not require a steel-lined concrete containment building. To date, only two experimental pebble bed reactors have been built, one in Germany and one in China. Exelon Corp. is considering building one in South Africa with that country's public utility, Eskom.
While there is little information available about the pebble bed design, Lochbaum says some of what he has seen so far sets off alarm bells. The biggest problem is the lack of a containment structure, because despite claims that this reactor would be "meltdown proof," graphite catches fire. A graphite fire burned for 10 days at Chernobyl before it could be put out, and though that was not the cause of the accident there, it made it harder to deal with. Lochbaum says that a fire in a pebble bed reactor could lead to a meltdown, because what is normally used to put out a fire also stops airflow, which is needed to keep the reactor from overheating. A design fix exists: installing huge tanks of either carbon dioxide or nitrogen, which would flood the space and extinguish the fire. But, he says, that would be very expensive and probably remove one of the main incentives of building this design, which is much cheaper than those currently in operation.
Nuclear power is currently widely touted as a source of clean, pollution-free energy. And if you don't count what you can't see, smell, or taste, that might be true. Unfortunately, radiation can't be seen, smelled or tasted (unless somebody gets a high enough dose -- radiation poisoning -- which typically leaves a metallic taste in the mouth). But radiation's invisibility does not render it non-existent. Contrary to common belief, as part of their normal operations, nuclear reactors routinely emit radioactivity into the air and water with largely unmeasured consequences to human health and the environment.
Debby Katz, president of the Citizen's Awareness Network (CAN), a Massachusetts-based group that formed in response to concern about the now shut Yankee Rowe reactor in Western Massachusetts, says both the nuclear industry and the public health establishment repeatedly stonewall the public on health concerns over radiation releases by reactors. Her community is host to two nuclear reactors just 17 miles apart, Yankee Rowe and Vermont Yankee outside of Brattleboro, Vermont.
After noticing alarming increases in various types of cancer, Down's syndrome and birth defects, CAN began examining the records of Yankee Rowe and found that in the 1960s and 1970s, it had released 20,000 curies of radioactive tritium into the Deerfield River that ran through their valley. CAN engaged a graduate student from the Harvard School Public Health, who found that the amount dumped into the river was "orders of magnitude greater" than what people would be exposed to from normal background radiation. Relying on reactor release records, CAN also discovered that Vermont Yankee released 360,000 curies of radioactive isotopes into the air and water since it began operating, and the now shut Haddam Neck reactor in Connecticut released more than 120,000 curies of tritium into the Connecticut River.
In describing the exposure patterns for the people in the Deerfield river valley, CAN's website says: "Our community was exposed for 31 years. Our children swam in that river. Over 500,000 people a year use the river. In drought, farmers pumped water from the river to irrigate their crops. Air inversions blanket the river valley over 34% of the time, trapping the airborne contamination in our valley. The river is used for white-water rafting. Spit and spume from the rapids are dispersed into the adjacent community."
In 1991 at the urging of CAN and local physicians, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) began investigating rates of illness in the area. MDPH did conclude there were enough cases of in breast cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and Down's syndrome to be considered abnormal ("statistically significant"). Linking such maladies to an environmental factor is extremely difficult, and Katz says the department made no attempt to try to explain why the community was experiencing the elevated rates of illness. The report also said that residents' exposure to tritium from the river was "several orders of magnitude lower than the dose received from all natural sources of radiation."
Katz says the department seemed more interested in trying to downplay what they found and that they diluted the results by excluding people who should have been counted and by including people from communities outside of the contamination pathway. They also got somebody who had not been involved in collecting the data to write up the final report, which she says introduced errors that have still not been corrected. CAN's own researchers found higher than normal incidences of brain tumors and multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer. "It was really amazing. You could say they were just clueless, and on one level that may be true," she said. "But on another level, this is a kind of systematic bureaucratization of a process to stymie people and make them eventually walk away."
Robert Knorr, the deputy director for environmental epidemiology in the department's bureau of environmental health assessment, maintains that the department tried very hard to address the community's concerns by working with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the Harvard School of Public Health and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the information they have been able to gather, he says "nothing was sticking its head out that would tell us that this is a real problem, so we were left with the limitations of the science in trying to somehow find some answers for the community." By contrast, Knorr was part of a team that did find a significant link between leukemia cases and radiation emissions at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant near Boston in the late '70s and early '80s.
The industry and most public health authorities insist that nuclear power plants are safe because the radiation releases are too small to have any effect on anybody's health or the environment. In fact, some are even starting to say that it's good for us. The theory of hormesis -- that a little radiation is actually healthy because it boosts the immune system -- is gaining favor among nuclear proponents.
Just in time, too, because whether we swallow hormesis or not, the public is in for much more radiation exposure as the nation's old and contaminated nuclear weapons facilities and nuclear power plants are dismantled. Some of the radioactive materials they contain -- metals, concrete, and soil, among other things -- are being, or will be, "recycled" into a wide range of materials. These materials will make their way into everything from pots and pans, car chassis, braces on kids' teeth -- even artificial hip joints and IUDs -- to building materials in houses, furniture, computer equipment, and children's toys.
Nobody knows exactly how much of this material currently exists. The best estimates are on metals, which are said to account for the largest amount of radioactive material destined for recycling. The US's 123 commercial nuclear power plants (some of which are already closed down) are expected to contribute between 1.4 million to 2 million tons to the radioactive scrap metal heap. On top of that a recent government report noted that over the next few decades, more than a million tons of radioactive scrap metal are expected to be recovered from weapons facilities.
The NRC is in the process of writing rules for the "unrestricted release" of these materials, meaning that there would be no requirement to label, track or monitor the impact of this material as it moves out into our daily lives. Also, the Department of Transportation is changing its rules, so that this material can move freely (the new rules are expected to be finalized in July).
Environmental groups, the metal industry, and the Paper, Allied-Industrial and Energy Workers International Union (PACE), which represents a lot of workers who would be engaged in recovering or working with this material, are vehemently opposed to the plan. Radioactive materials have been released on an ad hoc basis for years, and the Steel Manufacturers Association reports 50 incidents involving materials released for recycling that were more contaminated than what the government considers safe, including two cases where companies had to spend about $20 million to clean up equipment that became contaminated.
It remains to be seen whether the steel industry, the environmental community or the public can stop the nuclear establishment from dumping this portion of its low-level waste into general commerce. One option is to try to keep it isolated in facilities licensed to deal with radioactive waste. But both DOE and NRC are looking at ways to cut costs, and "recycling" the waste is definitely a lot cheaper for the nuclear waste generators. In January this year, the Environment News Service reported that NRC chairman Richard Meserve said that releasing contaminated solid waste materials into everyday commerce is necessary to ensure the continued viability of the nuclear power industry, as well as DOE's clean-ups.
In 1986 and again in 1990, the environmental community blocked NRC's attempts to deregulate contaminated materials for unrestricted recycling, but now it may be a lot harder to stop. Other countries face mountains of nuclear garbage, and the European Commission and the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency are setting recycling standards. International transport regulations are also being amended to allow the free flow of unlabeled radioactive scrap and products made from it.
Experience with nuclear technology reveals it to be incredibly expensive, dirty and dangerous, with a legacy that we and future generations will have to deal with, essentially forever. The nuclear industry and its supporters are attempting to emotionally blackmail us into deepening our commitment to nuclear power. But the issues surrounding nuclear power are much more complex than the current simplistic arguments being made on its behalf. Soaring energy costs and threats of looming blackouts -- not to mention the growing evidence of global warming's environmental catastrophe -- are providing us a real opportunity to reassess our current energy habits and choose smarter, environmentally and economically sustainable energy sources. When considering nuclear power, we would do well to remember the old adage: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
Karen Charman is an investigative journalist specializing in agriculture, health and the environment. This originally appeared at TomPaine.com.